Monday, May 30, 2011

Defenders of Sanity

Last night, the discussion topic at AA was loneliness. A meaningful coincidence, considering the fact that my husband has been overseas for the past few weeks shuttling college students around Greece on a study-abroad trip, a trip I used to co-teach when I was gainfully employed as a stable, useful, necessary, and needed college professor. Now, when my husband posts pictures of himself posed with giddy students grouped in front of the ancient monuments at Delphi or happily semi-soused at tavernas, the table littered with miniature ouzo glasses and the dessicated carcasses of roasted fish, plates littered with olive pits and remnants of tzaziki, and I am no longer in those photos? I feel lonely, like I’ve lost some essential part of myself, like there was once this functioning, respectable, sort-of-happy Kerry and now, she is gone for good. I almost believe if I were to flip through those old photos from those previous trips, the only trace of me would be some ghostly shadow hovering in the corners of the negatives. No evidence that really, truly I was once there.

A few days ago, a friend and I were strolling through an old cemetery in town and she told me a story related to her by our town’s historian: a woman from the 19th century was unexpectedly widowed during her pregnancy with twins. Her husband wandered off into the woods and never returned. Suicide was speculated, but he was never found. When her children were born, she named them Loneliness and Desolation. I kid you not. What a burden to pass on. But sometimes this is the exact burden I have passed on to my own children. Loneliness and desolation. After all, these two states are the conjoined twins of Bipolar disorder, and are the damages that lay claim to those who lay in its path.

Take my daughter Sophia. In my most recent several months absence, her father and I thought it best that she receive some counseling. After all, she must be feeling some inner turmoil connected to my sudden leaving, connected to the upending of her life once again due to my illness. This past week I went with her to her therapy appointment; her therapist told me that while Sophia seems remarkably resilient, she also tends to hide her emotions, her pain, that she is able to deflect it and buries herself in books and her imagination. Exactly what I do. And then there’s Sophia’s verbalized loneliness connected to her friends, or lack there of, these days. She’s almost nine, at an age where most of the girls in her class have Bieber fever, are beginning to become pre-teen lobotomized, obsessed with bling and glitter, the catty whispers and the spiteful pushing and shoving up the nascent social ladder. Sophia is a girl obsessed with dragons and her pet lizard, Bomb, and barely sits still long enough for me to run a brush through her hair.

So when I suggested she could invite a friend over for a playdate the other day, she said, sadly, “I don’t really have any friends. No one wants to play with me. No one else believes in dragons. They just all tease me. I don’t have a true best friend.”
A fist in the gut. All I could do was hug her. Tell her she was perfect as is. Tell her that her imagination was amazing. That she was loved. Tell her that it took me a long time to find my best friend because I was wacky, too. But when I found her, my friend Erin, in 6th grade, we’ve been best friends ever since. That a best friend is worth waiting for.
Of course, I didn’t tell her about the desperate loneliness in between the wait. How, in fourth grade, because of that loneliness and desolation, I downed a bottle of Flintstone vitamins in hopes of ending that pain.

And then there’s this return to Greece in two weeks. The last time I was there, I was at the absolute bottom of the well. Drinking and purging and starving and so out-of-my-mind lonely and desolate that within a week of returning to the States, I deliberately overdosed on my meds and woke up (at the time, unfortunately) in the ICU. I was talking to my psychiatrist about this the other day, about my fear of my suicidal impulsivity. How this scene keeps replaying in my head: Christopher, the kids, and I are driving back down a mountainous cliff after some party at a church at the tippy-top of said mountain. In Greece, the roads wind perilously close to the cliff edges, no guard rails, just lucky restraint and care and sobriety keep you on the road. Except when they don’t. All along these roads, are little shrines built by family members to honor the dead (those who drove their cars or motorcycles over the cliffs and died) or the almost dead (those who almost drove their cars or motorcycles over the cliffs and managed to walk away). On this night, the kids were soundly asleep in the back seat; Christopher was driving, sober; I was beside him, decidedly not, and angry and manic and depressed and enraged and arguing and threatening to hurl myself from the car and off the side of the cliff. Determined to.

When I told this to my doctor, he said, “Well, the next time you feel like this, you climb into the back seat, get in between your kids, and hold onto their hands. Remember why you need to stick around. Remember why you need to stay alive.”

Of course, the next time, God willing, I will be sober, too, but even without alcohol in the mix, I’m still feeling the manic highs and lows and suicidal impulses. So my doctor’s advice seems both sage and sane.

And, I need to remember that I did not name my children Loneliness and Desolation, but Sophia (Wisdom) and Alexander (Defender). Taken together, my children suggest that they are the defenders of my sanity. Hold their hands and I will stay away from the cliff’s edge.


  1. Kerry, I know you're worried about Sophia, but I'll pass on to you one of the kindest things anyone ever said to me. I was newly hospitalized, sitting in the common area and bawling my eyes out because I had failed to keep it together enough to stay at home with my kids. I was sure I was damaging them irrevocably. A very well-pulled together woman sat down next to me and asked how I was. I wailed (loudly) that I was the world's most horrible mother. She held both my hands to calm me and asked, "How do you know your kids are damaged? Perhaps you are teaching them great compassion and composure. Maybe because of you they'll grow up with a lot fewer stereotypes about people with mental illness. Maybe they'll be very strong for having been through a lot very early." Later her teen daughters came to visit and they were indeed kind and lovely, not at all put off my the very motly inpatient crew. The woman went into a 4 month long substance abuse program the next day, so I think she knew what she was talking about.

    Good luck in Greece.

  2. Kerry-

    Whatever it takes. Stay with us. Whatever it takes. Hold hands, chant spells, spit holy water and spin around three times. Whatever it takes.

    Just stay here with us.

  3. Hi, Kerry - I posted yesterday - I don't know if it worked or you got the comment. I mentioned that I've been reading Linda Gray Sexton's memoirs, Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to my Mother, and Half in Love: the Legacy of Suicide, the latter of which is the more recent. One of LGS's main worries in Half in Love is her children and the legacy she does NOT want to pass on to her sons. Despite her best intentions, she still makes two suicide attempts and spends four years incapacitated by depression. I'll give away the end: her sons are doing great (they're in their 20s). They understand that we are living in a new era--there's new research and there are so many new drugs and so much better understanding. LGS points out that the medical community regards depression and bipolar as medical conditions, just as diabetes and heart disease are.

    Sophia is like Zoe at that age. She, too, felt lonely because she loved her American Girl Dolls, and dramatic play, and reading A Series of Unfortunate Events, and watching films (yes, "films"). She got into the bling and glitter and all the rest, she just didn't do it on the other kids' schedule. Thank goodness! She's been in therapy with the same wonderful therapist since we moved here in 2007, when she was entering the 5th grade, and that's been a great thing. She has wonderful Win to check in with - and Win's my therapist, too, now. I think that kids are resilient - when they can get through hard times and see that parents get better and that their own lives get better, they are strengthened. I think (or hope) that it prepares them to deal with the inevitable hardship that they'll face as adults. I think the problem is when they go through hard times and the result is one disaster after another, and they aren't given the tools or resources for healing. YOU are giving Sophia those things - plus loads of love.

    I'm sending you lots of love, sweetie. You are in my prayers.